(Or an exploration of the emptiness of form and natural ordering systems)
Albert Bierstadt, Mount Hood, Oregon 1869, Portland Art Museum.
Every time I see this painting I am a little bit surprised, it always reveals a little something more about what it is like to live in the Pacific Northwest.I think that this was painted on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge looking south to Mt. Hood. Like most Bierstadt paintings, he's interested creating a representation of the mountain that might convey a larger truth about the land, or at least as he saw it.
"It is quite commonly thought that the intellect is responsible for everything that is made and done. The intellect is a hazard in artwork. I mean, there are so many paintings that have gone down the drain because somebody got an idea in the middle."
Agnes Martin in "Thin Gray Line" Vanity Fair, March 1989, p.56
Artists have always tried to find ways of translating and transforming nature in their work. In the Lascaux caves 25,000 years ago, it was the animals that they saw during their hunts. For the Greeks it was the beauty of the human body although I think that they were interested in the ideal of beauty rather than particular shapes of a single, living human being. Still, it was a form of beauty and perfection that was based on the expression of natural forms. For painters like Leonardo Da Vinci nature was a system to be studied to make their paintings more true to our experience of daily life. He studied botany, anatomy and hydrodynamics to make his paintings more realistic and accurate of the creative forces of nature. For the best Chinese painters over the last thousand years, the natural world would be re-created in their paintings and became a unique refuge where a person could get in touch with the forces of nature and find peace from busy lives. The paintings were never representational of a specific place but were literally formed by the creative forces of nature. A visit to a waterfall or a tall mountain was the direct experience of the contrasting and generative forces of yin and yang. For the Chinese, the direct experience of nature, rather than its representation, was proof that we were a part of nature and that we had our own place in the universe.
Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872.
Thomas Moran paintings of Yellowstone were necessary to convey the beauty and epic scale of his experience of its unique environment to the people in Washington, D.C. who would be able to protect it as a National Park.
In the United States, one could say that it is through art that we most eloquently express our hopes, fears and ideals about the land that we inhabit. It is our relationship to the land and to nature that has become one of the defining characteristics of some of the best artists of the last two centuries. Following the example of Nicolas Poussin and J.M. W. Turner both Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt strove to communicate the unique beauty and the monumental grandeur of nature of the natural forms they encountered in their travels across the United States in their paintings. Later, both Ansel Adams and Georgia O'Keefe continued these traditions and devoted their lives to moving closer to nature and attempted to convey those experiences in their work. Starting in the late 1940's and early 1950's, a group of artists in New York found that they could no longer convincingly include the traditional forms of nature in their work. These artists, the Abstract Expressionists, felt that drawing and painting the beautiful forms of the Hudson River Valley or even the dense urban streets of downtown Manhattan did not make sense to them in the same that way it had inspired artists in the past. The representation of nature in painting became unsatisfying especially if it was something that might be captured so easily by a camera. The times had changed and the artist's were substantially less romantic about their relationship to nature although I am sure part of that had to do with the extreme violence and horror of the Second World War. They had to find a new way of incorporating nature into their work.
Leonardo Da Vinci, Study of Water Falling into Still Water, 1508-9.
Leonardo felt that if he could understand the underlying principles of what he was studying then it would make his painting better because he could recreate the object from the inside out. He was not satisfied with the exterior representation of what he was studying. He wanted his painting to be as creative and self generative as the objects and processes that he was observing in nature.
When Jackson Pollock responded "I am nature" to a comment by Hans Hoffman about where nature was in his work, I do not think that he was far from the truth. We are all a part of nature, Pollock just found a unique way to express it. When Pollock found that he could paint by holding a stick or brush over the surface of a canvas that had been placed on the floor, he literally let nature express itself in a way that it had never done before in art. By allowing the materials respond to gravity and the environment in a way that was unique to the specific properties of the paint that he was using, he found a new way to paint. He found a way to let the natural emerge from the properties of the materials rather than depicting or representing it as artist's had done in the past.
A close inspection of the paintings reveals a mind boggling array of variables and material characteristics that come together in a unique way to make the painting. The most significant of the attributes is gravity. Paint that is flung into the air will follow a trajectory to the canvas based on the speed and motion of his arm, the viscosity of the paint and the constant downward pull of gravity. By studying the way that these paintings were made, Pollock's collaboration with his materials and the environment in which he worked becomes visible to us in a unique way. We can imagine where he might have been standing, how far he had to lean over, the speed of his arm, the thickness or thinness of the paint that he was using, did he add additional layers of paint while they were still wet or did he let them dry and if the viscosity of the paint varied according to temperature, then one could even figure out if the painting was painted on a warm or a cool day. By working above the canvas, whether knowingly or unknowingly, he was able to encode a tremendous amount of information on his canvas. The gap between the stick or the brush and the canvas allows all of these interconnections to still be understandable to us today. I would say that Pollock's collaboration with nature is best revealed by the way that he adapted to the way that his materials behaved under extreme conditions. Paint placed by the end of a brush does not look like paint flung from the end of a stick. The result is collaboration with nature where the natural processes of painting become visible to us in a unique way. A close inspection of any painting would reveal a similar interaction between the material properties of paint and the way that it is applied to the canvas but it is in Pollock painting's that these attributes are legible enough to become the dominant experience of the painting.
Jackson Pollock, Number 1A, 1948. Museum of Modern Art.
Pollock's paintings were expressions of the natural properties of the materials that he was using. He was not representing nature, he was using it.
Pollock transformed painting in another subtle but equally significant way. He might have a good idea of what each brush stroke would look like before he made it but he would never know for sure until the mark was actually made. Each gesture with the paint was the collaboration between his own intentions, the characteristics of his paint and the environment in which he painted. His primary control over the process was his role as editor. As editor, it was his decision about when another layer of paint was necessary or superfluous. In other words, his incorporation of the processes of nature into his painting process was an artistic decision that could be controlled and edited even though the exact results of a single action could not be predicted ahead of time. The paintings became a collaboration that achieved a much more complex and rich result than what might have been achieved had he used a more a traditional approach to painting. He found a way to make the painting's self generative. His process was only a tool though, and would not tell about whatever experience he wanted the painting to communicate. He would have to figure that out by himself. While the painting process informs the experience of looking at the painting it is nonethess separate from it. Intention is everything and process always serves intention. This is why a Pollock painting is art when any drips that we see on the street aren't. The difference is intention. Process alone does not explain the experience of standing in front of these paintings. I wonder if that was properly understood when he was alive. Pollock was not alone in trying to find ways of opening his painting process to generate unexpected and complex results.
Willem DeKooning, Untitled, 1977.
In order to make a painting work, DeKooning was unable to paint it all at once. He had to start, scrape most of it off and then start again. Slowly, after a period of time he might find some that he would be able to work with. Like Pollock, DeKooning found part of his inspiration for his painting in the natural properties of the materials. The expression of the properties of the material is a major part of the experience of his paintings.
Willem DeKooning was famous for starting a painting in the morning and then cleaning off the canvas and the day's work before he left that night. The trick is that he never completely cleaned off the canvas; there were always the odd markings that would slowly accumulate over time. It was out of these left over markings that he might finally find something that he could work with that would provide a seed to generate the painting. It is always interesting to think about what he was cleaning away after each day's work. Was it frustration in not being able to make the painting that he thought he should be able to? Was it all of his ideas and intentions about painting that has nothing to do with the object in front of him? It is almost like the paintings were generated by everything that they weren't. In DeKooning's process, frustration becomes a kind of virtue. It was a virtue that allowed him to engage in a process that could create a complexity and richness that he could not achieve if he planned out the painting in advance. The painting, like experience, had to be spontaneous and direct like a Zen master even if the process was slow and tortuous. He could not plan out his painting at the beginning and then work on it from start to finish. The result would not have been as good or as interesting. He had to find a way to speak with his own voice through his materials. He did not necessarily want to work this way, he had to work this way. It was the only way that worked for him. This process is still relevant today. An extension of DeKooning's process can be seen in the way that Gerhard Richter can incorporate random and unexpected effects into his abstract paintings that are created as he drags a squeegee through various wet and dry layers of tube paint. DeKooning's work embraces all of the contradictions between control and spontaneity and between intentional and the accidental. He found a way to collaborate with his materials to find a way to open his painting language and process beyond himself. DeKooning, like Pollock, had found a way to engage nature not as subject matter but as process.
Gerhard Richter, Uran, 1989.
In Richter's abstract paintings he often starts with a rigid geometrical structure that is then covered in multiple layers of paint of different thicknesses. He stops when the result reaches a complexity that he could not have planned in advance but somehow communicates something to him. The painting is a collaboration with the materials properties of his paints and his tools. Like Pollock and DeKooning, part of his process requires him to be an editor in order to control when to start and stop each layer even if he could not predict the effect of each layer of paint beforehand.
By the early 1960's things were reaching a crisis point for the younger artists. No artist could follow of a painter like Pollock or DeKooning without copying their style. Their connection to their materials was unique or perhaps it was a difference of intention. Perhaps Pollock could bend the process to serve his intentions when the younger artist's couldn't. The signature process of DeKooning, Pollock and a host of an older generation of painters were each suited to their individual strengths. Their paintings changed both what painting was and opened a world of possibilities of art. For younger artists there did not seem to be a clear way forward except that they knew that they could not go back. In essence they had to find a new way to open the language of art beyond themselves. They had to find a new way to collaborate with nature. Just as the Abstract Expressionists could not convincingly paint the Hudson River Valley, the artists of the sixties could not convincingly paint like the painters of the forties and the fifties. If they had tried to make work like that Abstract Expressionists their work would have been a depiction or a representation of what they knew painting should look like rather than the direct experience and awareness that is naturally generated in Pollock's and DeKooning's painting.
The struggle of the younger artists to find their own language echoed the struggle that compelled the Abstract Expressionists to find their own processes twenty years before. Luckily, there was already an artist that had been refining a language of painting that would provide an invaluable role model for the younger artists, Ad Reinhardt. By the late fifties, Reinhardt's paintings seemed to be almost completely black. It was only after staring at a painting for fifteen or twenty minutes did one's eyes adjust so that you could realize that the painting was not one black but a whole series of different blacks so that the structure of the painting resembled nine squares formed by interlocking crosses. Reinhardt's solution to the signature technique of an artist like Pollock, DeKooning or even Rothko was to make the painting almost entirely neutral and empty.
Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, 1960-66, Guggenheim Museum, NY.
The grid like structure of the painting slowly comes in to focus as the blacks begin to slowly differentiate themselves. For painters like Reinhardt and Martin, form was one way to reject the artist's role as editor and a rigorsous simplicity becomes the antidote to technique.
It is worth taking a moment to think about why Ad Reinhardt's paintings worked and the problems the paintings solved for him. A square is the same for everyone and a grid from nine squares is the same from any orthogonal direction. It is at once direct, accessible, absolute and infinite. In the black paintings even the grid is almost obliterated by the subtly varying shades of black squares. I don't think that Reinhardt decided to make a painting about squares; it was just that every other painting he made seemed to make was overdone or extraneous. It was not an intellectual decision and he wasn't trying to make a formal statement. It was simply the only solution that worked but to make it work he had to give up a lot of his earlier ideas about what painting was. The black paintings are not about the grid nor are they necessarily about the color black. They are about the experience of Art. Anything else was unnecessary. The grid and the black color are tools but do necessarily reveal anything about his intention. To understand his intention you have to look at the paintings he made. The key was not putting more of himself into the paintings but taking more of himself out, especially because he was always going to be there in the end anyway.
As I mentioned above, in order for a painting like Pollock's or DeKooning's to develop there was a lot of editing. There was a lot of balancing of composition, brush strokes and colors. This is what made the paintings so expressive. This is why they worked because you really got a feeling for the artist, what he was experiencing and what he wanted to communicate. Reinhardt was different though. He taught Asian art history for twenty years at Brooklyn College. His lectures sometimes had over 2,000 slides in them and this was in the early 1960's and way before computers. Clearly he had looked and absorbed a lot of art that would have filtered into his own work. He had a different frame of reference for his work which is probably why it was not well understood in the art world of the fifties. I can't but help wondering if some of the aesthetic of his work or perhaps the problems that he mapped out for his painting to solve came out of his own study of Asian Art. In the arts of China and Japan that are related in way or another to Buddhism there is a very different motivation to make art that is different than most western art because it is not based on the search for individual or personal expression because they know that it is already their anyway. In a subtle way, any emphasis became over-emphasis. Buddhist art strove for quality that would have been positively anathema in New York in the fifties and sixties. The work stove for peace, calmness and tranquility. The grids of squares that Reinhardt finally settled on were about being neutral and not about formalism. They had to be neutral to not distract the viewer from the experience of looking at the painting. Direct experience of the painting creates a sense of self awareness in the viewer. In order to slow you down, the colors are very close in value. You had to stop and invest a lot of time with these painting if they were ever going to reveal themselves to you. These were paintings about open ended contemplation and direct self awareness. The danger of Reinhardt's painting is that seeing the painting finally the subtle shades of black could be thought of as the "point" of the painting rather than the opening ended potential of the direct experience of art. I think that is why his paintings are often misunderstood. People mistake the process and the tools for intention when it is the other way around. The paintings were successful and very influential to future generations because the simple forms and subtle colors were an antidote to the signature and expressive quality of the other artists of his generation. He created convincing paintings that were not about editing, thoughtful colors, or interesting compositions. His art was beyond all of that now.
Agnes Martin, The Islands, 1961.
The white border defines the border within the border of the painting. The repeating marks within the field of the canvas flatten space and a communicate profound feeling. The painting does not refer to anything beyond itself.
It is never quite this simple but a good start might be that Reinhardt, following in the footsteps of Malevich, discovered something unique: that form was a solution for moving beyond technique. In other words, form could become a tool like dripping paint. Also by working with form an artist could eliminate the role of the editor and negate the need for an expressive technique. There were wouldn't be any colors to be balanced or any dynamic compositions. That wasn't essential to painting and it wasn't essential to art even if we are told that's what good painting is. Everything that seemed so arbitrary and personal could be removed. It was not only extraneous but potentially hazardous. All that would be left would be the experience of art. Intention could be expressed more simply and more directly in form. I wonder if he thought that with the simpler form that he would be able to send the clearer message. That is probably true, except people were not yet ready for what he had to say. His intentions were misread. The irony of the better artists of the fifties Pollock, DeKooning, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman is that the more they eliminated their own ideas about painting the better they became. Compare the early paintings of Newman or Rothko with their later paintings. The later paintings are almost always simpler, stronger and developed with a clearer sense of intention. A good counter example would be artists like Robert Motherwell and Mark Tobey. They were never able to move beyond their own initial ideas or in a strange maybe they were already too technically skilled. Their work did not grow like the other artists of that their generation and I wonder if they were afraid or unable to find a way to get themselves out of the painting. Clyfford Still would be the exception in that he understood this by the early forties when his early work matches up very well with his later work in the fifties and sixties. Reinhardt also understood this better than most. By opening up the language of his art beyond himself, beyond his technique, he was able to achieve more than if it was bound by his own limits as an artist and as a person. The forms had to be simple or that might be another type of technique. He strove for simplicity and neutrality. It was only then that they could become unexpectedly expressive and that he could clearly articulate his intention.
"The trouble is, people here interpret an interest in perfection as a matter of technique, where as technique has nothing to do with it. In art and in life, technique is a hazard. To live with technique- do you see how awful that would be?
What's the opposite of technique?
Well, form, I guess."
Agnes Martin in "Thin Gray Line" Vanity Fair, March 1989, p.56
A little bit of explaining still might be in order. The forms that we are talking about are neutral otherwise the forms themselves become the dominant aspect of the experience of the art which is formalism. These forms are much simpler. One might even say that they are even generic or that are useful to the artist because they are generic. But using generic and neutral forms cause their own problems too. How does an artist begin to work with it? How does one begin to differentiate it?
Agnes Martin, Leaves, 1966.
In Leaves, the painting, like most natural systems, is generated from a few simple rules, mostly the proportional spacing between the horizontal and vertical lines. The painting is the same all over and paradoxically that sets us free. We are everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Agnes Martin's Leaves generates a flat surface of nearly infinite space. The flat, taut surface of the canvas is reinforced every time she draws a horizontal line across its surface. There seems to be actually two layers to Leaves. The first layer is a series of evenly spaced vertical lines that seem to be covered with gesso or white acrylic before a layer of horizontal lines is place across them. The horizontal lines are not spaced equally. There are three in close proximity and the gap and then three horizontal lines. The proportional relationship of the lines would be A:A:A:B:A:A:A:B and it continues to the bottom of the canvas. The difference in depth between the vertical lines underneath and the irregular rhythmic spacing of the horizontal lines on top creates a very complex painting. It is a painting with the space and the color squeezed out. Like nature, it is a pattern of growth generated by a very simple set of rules tjat respond to the boundaries of the canvas. We are left with the skeletal grid of pencil lines. The lines are very gently drawn on to the surface of the canvas. Not only are you able to see the entire painting in a single glance, the painting is literally the same all over. There is nowhere to travel in the painting because it seems to be the same all over. The beautiful proportional relationships that we explore between the zips and the field in a Barnett Newman painting. Gone. The overwhelming sense of volume and space that Newman is able to create with his colors. Gone. The amazing handling of oil paint to create extremely subtle different shades of black of Ad Reinhardt. Gone.
The structure of the painting is clearly repetitive, it a self generative process that is based on the execution of a few simple rules. It is the repetition that squeezes out any space or illusion that might be in the painting. Since the lines are nearly identical regardless of the spacing or their orientation, there is a serial relationship between the lines that forms the structure of the painting. Each line is practically indistinguishable from any other line although the vertical lines are clearly distinguishable for the horizontal lines because of orientation and they are slightly softer because they are covered with a layer of paint. One line is interchangeable with any other line which means that each line is not carrying any specific spatial or tactile information.
The repeating modules of the horizontal and vertical lines give the painting an even density that extends beyond the edges of the painting. The painting is literally the same everywhere or at least nearly as it can be and still be made by hand. There is no composition to the painting and there is no space. The panting exists as an undifferentiated and even distributed field. The painting lacks a compositional center. The center is everywhere and nowhere. I think that is why Martin liked the grid and it reminded her innocence since any direction is as a good as any other. The only thing that is extraordinary about the arrangement of the lines is its austerity and restraint but at the same time we are free because everything is available to us. If we look at the painting long enough, the process dissolves and all we are left with is intention.
Robert Smithson, Alogon #3, 1967.
In Alogon, the work is generated by proportional enlargement of one module of the work. The scale of the work changes while the spaces between the parts remain consistent. The work that is generated from a few simple rules becomes a complex result.
When we think of nature we might think of beautiful waterfalls, mountain top vistas or island beaches. Others might see nature in our bodies and our actions. But nature is incredibly diverse and comes in a practically infinite multiplicity of forms and ordering systems. Finding inspiration in mathematics and sciences, artists learned that the art could be expressed by the differentiation of neutral forms by equally neutrally systems especially mathematical progressions. The younger artists of the 1960's that were searching for the language that would make sense them had to establish their own connection to nature. They were not interested in representing or depicting nature, they were interested in using some of the same processes of nature (science, mathematics, linguistics) to order their own work. A principle in mathematics or science is without reference or scale. It exists and by itself it is not art, it has no intention by itself. It is only a tool, a potential process. But for the artists that were looking for a neutral way to order, generate or differentiate their work these systems were extremely useful. Just as dripped paint by itself is not art so too is it that these systems by themselves are not art but if they are used by an artist there is the potential they could be. Probably a more accurate way to say it is that if these systems were used by an artist then they could be a tool that could produce an experience that might be art. Even when the systems are used by an artist they never become art themselves. Rather than finding it in the forms of mountains or waterfalls, some artists found potential in the application of mathematics to order or differentiate certain types of work. The artists weren't trying to represent nature, they wanted to use it. They wanted to use natural processes to drive and describe their own work. They needed a process to serve their intentions. The artist's of the sixties were not interested in depicting nature; they were interesting in using it.
Donald Judd, Progression, 1969.
Judd's progressions often contain two Fibonacci Series in this piece one positive and one negative working in opposite directions. The solid volumes below generate the length of each successive piece on the lower part by adding the previous two parts together. The voids work the same way by starting on the right and working back to the left.
When Donald Judd started making his progressions, he was confronted with an interesting problem. Judd was interested in making work that would have directness and material presence of a Jackson Pollock painting. Unfortunately, Pollock was a genius painter and there was no way to use Pollock's language without imitating him. The intentions were different. Judd had to look elsewhere. For Judd, one way to echo the directness of a Pollock painting was to embrace the raw industrial materials that were easily available. If the work could be generated from the inherent characteristics and forms of the materials then perhaps he could achieve work that was a direct as Pollock. But it didn't stop there. If he was working on the material then that would be similar to the traditional practice of the artist but with the change to the new industrial materials which would not work either. He needed to go deeper. If he was going to embrace the industrial materials then he should embrace the industrial practices as well and have high professional crafts people who work with the materials all the time to fabricate the work. He would use both the material and the process. The work would be generated not out of a love for rectangular volumes but because that is the most straight forward way to work with the inherent characteristics of large, flat pieces of material. This was not a formal or aesthetic decision. He was trying to find something that worked. In the sixties, this was a radical idea. It is a radical idea even today. He was trying to remove his personal preferences which seemed too traditional and not direct enough from the fabrication of his work and embrace the materials and skills that were around him. Judd rejected the idea of becoming an editor. This was as new of a way of looking at art as Pollock working above a canvas attached to the floor.
Donald Judd, Progression, 1969.
By generating the work from a series of mathematical relationships, Judd was able to discover a sufficiently neutral way of differentiating the spaces in the sculpture to match its materials and fabrication process. The work is self-generative and once the initial parameters of the work is established there is no need for an editor.
Still the materials are just materials and not art by themselves and this was Judd's problem. The materials themselves did not communicate any type of experience. In other words, as raw material they lack any intention. He had to find as neutral of way of ordering the work as the materials themselves were neutral. In his Progressions, he found an interesting solution on how to differentiate a material in a sufficiently neutral and non-personal way by using a mathematical series. Nature organizes itself in lots of different ways but it seems as though there is always an underlying order no matter how deeply it seems that it is buried. In arithmetical progressions like the Fibonacci series one number is added or subtracted to the previous number to generate a new number. This new number is then added or subtracted to the previous number to generate the new number and so on. An example of the Fibonacci series in nature is the way that the seeds in are placed around a sunflower. In the Progression series, the Fibonacci series gave Judd an alternative to dividing the long tube of aluminum into fractional lengths like 1 /2, 1 /3 or 1 /4 that would have been easily recognized by the viewer. Also the using an arithmetic series meant that the progressions are naturally asymmetrical. The Fibonacci series is not the subject or the intention of these works; it is a tool in the same way that Pollock's technique for dripping paint was used to make his paintings but is not their subject matter either. The mathematical progressions are a way of organizing and articulating material. Ideally, the subject matter for these work, if there was one, would be how the work would relate to the space in which it is placed and how that relationship is experienced by the viewer. In a way that is similar to Reinarhdt, Judd was constantly striving for neutrality, anything else would get in the experience of art. His work could be described as neutral materials used in neutral forms displayed in neutral spaces. But this was not an aesthetic decision about forms or even some intellectual decision; it was simply the most natural, direct and best way to leave the most room for the experience of the viewer.
Robert Rauscheberg, Mud Muse, 1967-71.Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Mud Muse is one of Rauschenberg's most surprising work because he was able to take mud as a material and by having it respond to its environment it becomes art.
Other artists found different ways to engage in materials and process that would otherwise be thought of as being natural. In 1968 Robert Rauschenberg starting working on one of his most unusual works that was called Mud Muse with the Teledyne Corporation as part of the Experiments in Arts and Technology (E.A.T.) program that was sponsored by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. EAT paired artists with aerospace and material companies to see what would be possible if each side learned from the other's expertise. Completed in 1971, Mud Muse was a sound activated pool of mud. A loud enough sound produced a bubble or series of bubbles to rise through the mud. The trick was that the relationship between the sound, the bubbles and the mud were non-linear. An example of the effects of the non- linear programming would be that a loud sound on one occasion might produce a bubble with a delay of 5 seconds but the next time that you try it the delay might be 1 second or 10 seconds. The delay either makes the viewer very patient or frustrated depending on your state of mind. Mud Muse is constantly acknowledging and responding to the sounds of its environment but in a way that it is not easy to predict. Rauschenberg was such a good artist that he could make art out of anything, even mud.
The concept of the work is very easy to understand but it must have been extraordinarily difficult to fabricate. First, the mud would have to be the right viscosity so that it seems relatively solid but is fluid enough to let the air bubble pass. Second, you would have to determine where the bubbles would rise in the mud. He would have had to decide if he wanted the hoses placed in a grid to allow the bubbles to move an even way across the surface or if there another pattern that he preferred. Next, someone would have to build a very precise air compressor that would have to be fine tuned to produce enough air to break the surface but not enough so that you spray mud over the entire room. Last, there would have to be an audio control that would interpret different sounds as electrical impulses that could be sent to the compressors and the tubes to let the bubble respond to the sounds that the viewers make. No wonder that it took 4 years to make and Teledyne was a company that worked on the space program! In some ways I think that Roxy Paine's experiments with machines that make paintings and sculpture are extensions of these ideas. In both cases it is a machine that is responding to set of parameters that is either generated in the environment or from a code that makes art. Mud is a natural material and the air bubbles rising to the surface is a natural process but it is the way it responds it to the environment and the sounds of the viewer that makes it art.
Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970, Dia Art Foundation.
Among other reasons, the form of the Spiral Jetty echoes the forms of salt formations and encrustations at both micro and macro levels. The spiral blurs the boundary between lake and land.
In the late 1960s, Smithson began to look around for a site to create a large earthwork. After rejecting the Mono Lake because it does not contain red micro bacteria and rejecting a lake in Bolivia as being to far away, he eventually decided on a site called Rozel Point on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Spiral Jetty is a large spiral constructed from rock quarried from the shore line. The site itself in is in an area marked by nearby abandoned oil derricks and other left over industrial refuse from earlier in the century. The possibility of not restoring a natural back to its pristine state but to work with the way that industry had transformed the land is something that had great appeal to Smithson. He thought is it was important to recognize the way that industry had transformed the land and to work within that the reality of its present state rather than encouraging a more romantic view of what the site might have looked liked in the past. Also, I would imagine that the site that had already been exploited by industry were the only sites that might have been available to the artists. Most artists had to build their work in places where the land was of little or no value. Partially, this is because of the budgets that they were working with. Previous industry would have also built to the roads to these places to make them semi-accessible. Most of these projects were privately financed with galleries and collectors rather than being commissioned by major museums. Spiral Jetty is no exception and entered the collection of the Dia Art Foundation from the Robert Smithson Estate in 1999. Artists worked where and with what they or their sponsors could afford. Often that meant working in remote or abandoned industrial areas.
"The site was a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness. From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty. No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence. My dialectics of site and nonsite whirled into an indeterminate state, where solid and liquid lost themselves in each other. It was as if the mainland oscillated with waves and pulsations, and the lake remained rock still. The shore of the lake became the edge of the sun, a boiling curve an explosion rising into fiery prominence. Matter collapsing into the lake mirrored in the shape of the spiral. No sense of wondering about classifications and categories, there were none."
Robert Smithson in The Spiral Jett y (1972) reprinted in Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty edited by Lynne Cooke and Karen Kelly, 2005. Published by the Dia Art Foundation, New York and the University of California Press. pg. 8.
Michael Heizer, Dissipate, Part of Nine Nevada Depressions, 1968, Black Rock Desert, Nevada. Destroyed.
The layout of the wooden forms was determined by chance. Heizer had dropped wooden matchsticks on a New York street and photographed the arrangement. The arrangement was enlarged to become Dissipate in teh Black Rock Dissipate. Both the forms and the arrangement were generated by simple rules. In this case, the boundaries of the dry lake bed become the boundaries of the work.
One of things that I have always found interesting about Spiral Jetty is that it is able to bring the entire expanse of the Great Salt Lake into the space of the piece. The water and salt of the Great Salt Lake becomes one boundary for the work. The rocks and hills around Rozel Point becomes the boundary of the work on land. Spiral Jetty is where the rock and the water dance around one another. The reason that the Jetty is part of discussion about the natural processes influence the way that artists make is art is that I am sure that Smithson was aware that as salt crystal forms at both the micro and macro scales they often create spirals. I am sure that he knew this but I am equally sure that is not the only reason that he chose the spiral. He chose the spiral because it worked and it solved some problems for him. Nonetheless, the spiral form of Smithson's creates a profound and exhilarating communion with nature. Just as the entire space of a basin is brought into a work by Michael Heizer, how could we separate the water that is integral to the experience of the work versus the water that would be outside and extraneous to the work? How could we draw that boundary? The form of the spiral is transcended as it becomes and extended line of the interchange between the land and the lake. This experience is reinforced by the way that Smithson chose to use rocks from the surrounding shoreline and hills to make the work. The work is echoing the boundaries and the spiral process of salt encrustation on many different scales. I think that his choice to use the rocks at hand to build the work should not be underestimated. Smithson after all, hauled a bunch of rocks from Mono Lake to New York for his show. It was definitely cheaper to use the rocks at hand for Spiral Jetty but he would have never used them if they did not suit his purpose. His purpose, I believe, was to use the rocks from Rozel Point to give the form of the spiral a direct connection to the land.
Sol Lewitt, Incomplete Open Cube, 1974.
The Incomplete Open Cube series was based on the simples of slowly removing a different amount of the line segments of a cube. Every unique variation of line segments becomes its own sculpture. The mathematical relationships are a tool of the artists but not necessarily the subject matter of the work.
Sol Lewitt, Diagram of the Incomplete Open Cube series, 1974.
When you are looking at the entire series, it is the differences rather than the similarities between the cubes that stands out. You tend to notice the unique variation of a segments that makes that particular variation unique and how those change across the entire series.
Donald Judd was not the only artist of the sixties to incorporate mathematical ideas into his work of the 1960's. Sol Lewitt seemed to find mathematical descriptions a useful and natural way of generating and exploring variations of his work. In the early seventies, Sol Lewitt began working on a series of work called the Incomplete Open Cube series. Rather than using a mathematical progression in his work, Lewitt was slowly taking segments away from the framework of an open cube. The order in which the segments were removed and the forms that were resulted could be mapped out and described in a mathematical way. Mathematics was a useful way of generating a complexity and variety of forms in a way that could be naturally self generating. The work might begin with a simple set of rules or a basic premise and then the system could run long enough to generate complex and unexpected results. It is revealing to think about the nature of Lewitt's work if you imagine the experience of looking at a single Incomplete Open Cube versus seeing a very large room filled with the entire series. They are very different experiences. If you see a single cube in isolation, one might be drawn to the aesthetics the internal relationships of that particular cube. A viewer might see the work as a formal and aesthetic exercise and look at the work in the same way that one might examine a sculpture by Rodin. I think that would be a mistake even though I know that this is the way that the work is often presented in museums but it is the context that is everything in work like this. If you see an entire room of the entire series, the aesthetics of one particular cube becomes less important because you are more of the system that produced the cubes and the interconnectedness of the entire series. It is worth emphasizing that Lewitt made his work this way because it solved certain problems that he found were inherent to his practice. He made art like this because it worked when other art wouldn't.
Walter De Maria, 5-7-9 Series, 1992.
Each unique configuration of numbers becomes its own sculpture. There is only 27 possible combinations of numbers that would be mathematically possible. The subject of the work is not the relationship between the numbers but how those configurations can be used as a tool to convey an experience.
By the nineties, Walter de Maria had also produced a series of work about the finite number of ways that numbers could be organized into different combinations. In the 5-7-9 series, the entire work is the display of all of the possible combinations of the numbers 5, 7 and 9. Each number is represented by a specific polygon: 5 is a five sided pentagon, 7 is a seven sided heptagon and 9 is a nine sided nonagon. The different shapes of each of the extruded polygons allowed the artist to make a work that was dictated by a mathematical formula. Each number is odd so that if you looked at the sculptures head on there would always be a line down the middle as the edges of the polygon meet. The light will cast different shadows on each extruded polygon. As with Judd, De Maria is using the numbers as a tool and they are not necessarily the subject of the work. The numbers and their combinations are a way of generating the work. They became his process. By using numbers, De Maria found a way to open his process beyond himself, to let the work generate itself in a way. I think that he was interested in creating a self generating process in the way that Lewitt was able to create the Incomplete Open Cube series by establishing some simple open parameters that would generate a rich and unexpected complex work. The boundaries of the rules become the boundaries of the work. His process is a collaboration between the forms of the polygons, their mathematical relationships and his own intentions for the work.
An installation of work by Walter De Maria in Naoshima, Japan, 2000.
A different version of the entire 5-7-9 series is on display in a space designed by the architect Tadao Ando.
Even if the combinations of numbers were generated by mathematics that by itself does not quite explain the experience of what it is like to stand in front of one of these sculptures. Each sculpture is made of solid stainless steel although the installation looks like the material was changed to brass or some kind of gold coating in the installation in Japan. There are a possible 27 combinations of numbers that could be roughly divided into three groups: primary, symmetrical and asymmetrical. The 6 sculptures in the primary number group are all of the different combinations of ways to arrange the numbers 5, 7 and 9. Although, this system was used to generate of the number numbers, I think that it would work for any three numbers. The numbers 5-7-9 were an aesthetic decision. In the symmetrical group there are 9 solutions and that is all of the ways that work could be displayed where the two outer polygon rods have the same number or sides. Last in the asymmetrical group there are 12 solutions in which the center polygon rod and one of the edges have the same number of sides. Like Lewitt's Incomplete Open Cubes, the work raises interesting questions about the way that one work expresses the collective potential of the entire system. Although each one of the sculptures in different and is an individual expression of the relationship of the 5, 7 and 9 there is not one solution that is considered primary or right. All of the solutions are equal, just different manifestations of the same system.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Placebo), 1991, Museum of Modern Art.
Placebo is 1000-1200 pounds of hard candy wrapped in silver foil that is placed in a rectangle. The candy is evenly distributed with the boundaries of the rectangle. As part of the work, a viewer can take a piece of candy as part of the experience of the work so that the entire work slowly dissolves over time. It is the the responsibility of the owner to periodically replenish the candy to maintain the integrity of the work.
In 1991, Felix Gonzalez-Torres created a series of installations with piles of wrapped candy one of which is currently in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) called Untitled (Placebo). Each installation might be as large as 1000-1200 pounds of candy. First, that is a lot of candy and you better make sure that you have stable floors. It is interesting that an installation that is so fun because it is about candy is actually so large that you better check the structural constraints of your building. The best thing about the work and the work's primary purpose is that he encourages that you take a piece of candy when you see the work. Although you see the work, at least part of the work is experienced as taste which is unusual in most museums outside of the café. Placebo relates to our discussion about the way that natural processes can determine the form of the work because the distribution within the rectangular boundaries of the work is completely random. The work has an extremely high degree of entropy which means that we could take any piece of candy and move it to anywhere else inside the boundary and we would not be able to tell the difference.
Gerhard Richter, 1025 Farben, 1974.
1025 colors are randomly placed within the grid on the canvas. The painting has a high degree of entropy because you can imagine switching any two colors and it would probably not change the overall experience of the work. In this work, Richter rejects the role as editor in that the number of colors are based on those that are available and their positions are assigned at random. It is interesting to note that when Hirst makes his dot paintings that are superficially similar, Hirst finds it necessary to assign chemical compositions as titles and is comfortable with the narrative that they suggest.
The high degree of entropy of the work reminds me a lot of the paintings of Ad Reinhardt who wanted his paintings to look the same from an orientation. In this work, Gonzalez-Torres refuses to engage the role as editor because there is nothing to edit. Everything is the same. Even more striking is the understanding that the sculpture is slowly dissolving because as the people come to view the work the pile of candy gets smaller and smaller. The sculpture is literally walking out of the room one small piece at a time. This work challenges a lot of our conventional ideas about sculpture. The work is not fixed nor is designed. The boundary of the work establishes a relationship to the spaces in which it is sited but it is transient at best because the work is experienced it dissolves. Every piece of candy is equal and the field is indistinguishable from any orientation that coincides with the edges of the boundary of the candy. The entire field of the candy reminds me of a small reflective zen garden. The candy itself, assuming that you can find someone to keep making it for you, is infinitely replenishable which means that the entire pile of candy would systematically renew itself even if it was on display in a museum. I think that this work changes our definition about the potential of sculpture and installation art.
Casper David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1809.
For me, Monk by the Sea has always been about what it is like to confront the unknowable and that addressing nature, sometimes it requires the artist to surrender. It is about the vast unpredictability of nature and how we find our place with in it.
In Nature, a very simple set of rules can produce a very complex and unpredictable result. Artist's since that 1940's have tried to make their work more natural by incorporating systems and processes that nature uses to organize itself rather than trying to represent it because it produced better results. It worked by solving problems relative to the artist's own practice when more traditional methods wouldn't. In a similar way, a natural system is a series of natural processes responding to the conditions and parameters of a specific environment. It is not about aesthetics even though we might find the results beautiful. In a way, most natural systems are beyond beautiful. Our need to communicate, our aesthetics preferences, our humanness, does not change the patterns of growth and change in these places. Whether it is a tree, the ocean, or a vast geological event like the Grand Canyon they are specific responses to a given environment. Nature is without intention. It does not have a will outside of its own processes. In a subtle way, intention is what separates us from nature. Intention is the essence of our action while nature might be described as what exists without intention. For me intention is almost quintessentially human. With intention we choose to emphasize one thing over another. Nature is without discrimination. It exists only in time as a specific response to a given set of conditions without discrimination or intention. It is perhaps the lack of intention on nature's part that makes her forms so compelling. How often have you walked down the beach only to see an arrangement of rocks that are perfectly placed but you know that that no human hand ever composed them? Nature's logic and patterns are often deeper and more complex than almost anything that we could conceive. That is why it is so useful in for artists. But, we still have a lot to learn.
Hubble Space Telescope,Milky Way Galaxy,2002.
This essay has attempted to reframe the terms in which it is possible for an artist to address their relationship to nature. Artists do not have to be satisfied with engaging nature in a superficial way and that it is possible to use some of the deeper systems that nature uses to organize itself to create an experience that might be called art.